23. The Submission of the Christian Wife (Ephesians 5:21-32)
21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. 28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 because we are members of His body. 31 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see to it that she respect her husband.
Several years ago, I was speaking at a missions conference in India. We were riding in a van, on our way to tent where the conference was being held. We noticed several ladies walking beside the road whom we knew to be going to the conference, and so we stopped to give them a ride. The seat of the van were already filled. There was a box on floor that I had been using for a seat. When the ladies entered the van, I started to sit on the floor, so that one of the women could use the box to sit on. A godly older man, who was one of the officers of the mission, strongly resisted my efforts to sit on the floor. He wanted to give up his seat, so that I would not give up mine. I will never forget what he said, “If you sit on the floor, I shall lie on it.”
In his mind, I was a guest speaker, and thus I had to be given a place of honor. It was bad enough that I should be sitting on a box, but when I attempted to sit on the floor, that was going too far. He would not hear of it. He must be in a lower position than I, so if I sat on the floor, he would have had to lie down.
This man not only knew about submission, he was committed to practice it. I would that every one of us would be as committed to practice submission as my Indian friend. For him, submission was a way of thinking and a way of life. He looked for those occasions where his submissive spirit could work its way out in practice. Our text not only calls for acts of submission, it calls for this same kind of submissive spirit, not just from wives, who submit to their husbands, but from every Christian, as they submit one to another.
In our first study of Ephesians 5:21-33, we concentrated on the symbolic nature of marriage, and of the way in which it demonstrates the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church. In this lesson, we will devote our attention to the duty of the wife to submit to her husband, a reflection of the submission of the church to Christ. In our next study of these verses we will concentrate on the submissive spirit of the husband in relation to his wife.
The Structure of the Text
(21) and be subject
to one another
in the fear of Christ.
(22) Wives, be subject
to your own husbands,
as to the Lord.
(24)…the wives ought to be (subject)
to their husbands in everything.
(24)…as the church is subject to Christ,
(24) For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.
(33b) and let the wife see to it
that she respect her husband.
Of the 13 verses which constitute our text, only 3 1/2 verses are directed to the wives, while the remaining verses are directed toward the husbands. The verses which address the wives manifest a certain pattern or structure, which I have attempted to demonstrate above.134 Submission is called for in the first column; the focus of that submission is indicated in the second column, and then the standard is recorded in the third column. While there are many who do not like what Paul has to say to wives in these verses, there is little doubt as to what he has written. He begins with the general command in verse 21, and then applies it to wives in verses 22-24 and 33b. He repeats his instructions three times, each time giving more detail as to what is required of the godly Christian wife is she is to be in submission to her husband.
The Command: Be Subject135
The difficulty with understanding Paul’s command to wives to “be subject” to their own husbands is that our grasp of the meaning of the word “submit” is too narrow. Generally speaking, we think that the word “submit” is synonymous with the word “obey.” We are inclined to restrict submission to refer only to our response to those who are in authority over us. Very often, this is the case—but not always. Paul’s instruction in verse 21 is directed to every believer. Christians, without exception, are to “be subject to one another,” without any exceptions. Submission, then, must not only work “upward” (in terms of authority), but also downward. And so it is that submission is called for on the part of husbands to their wives (5:22-33), fathers to their children (6:1-4), and masters to their slaves (6:5-9).
Delling, in his article on the Greek word underlying the term “submit,” writes as follows: “In the first instance, then, hupatassomai does not mean so much ‘to obey’—though this may result from self-subordination—or to do the will of someone but rather ‘to lose or surrender one’s own rights or will.136 In the NT the verb does not immediately carry with it the thought of obedience … 137
The idea implicit in the term is “to place under” (in the active voice).138 As it is found in our text, the idea would be, “to subordinate oneself” or “to place oneself under.” In general terms, submission is the placing of oneself under the one to whom we submit. Since we are commanded to submit ourselves one to another, we are to place all others above ourselves. This idea is certainly not foreign to the New Testament, nor is it found only where the term “submit” is employed:
3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:3-8).
1 Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me” (Romans 15:1-3).
I doubt that any one word can sum up the essence of what the Scriptures mean by submission. Let me suggest several words, each of which identifies a certain element of submission. The first word is “surrender.” Submission is a voluntary act or surrendering one’s rights or will. The second word is” sacrifice.” The third is “service.” The service which is rendered those to whom we submit often involves a sacrifice. It costs us something to render service to the other person. A fourth term is “authority,” while a fifth is “obedience.” When we submit to one who has authority over us, we should evidence this submission, in part, by our obedience. Conversely, when we submit to those under our authority, we evidence this with sacrificial service. I final term is “priority.” Those to who we submit have, in some manner, priority over us, our rights, our pleasure, or our will.
I believe that the difficulty we find in defining submission is due, in part, to the fact that while submission is the same in its essence, it may differ greatly in its expression, depending on the context it is found. A wife’s submission to her husband is manifested differently than a child’s submission to its parents, or a slave’s submission to his master. One’s submission to a person in authority over him is expressed differently from his submission toward one who is under his authority. A wife’s submission to her husband is modeled after the church’s submission to Christ, while her husband’s submission is to be modeled after Christ’s headship over the church.
The Scope of the Wife’s Submission
The submission of women is addressed in two general contexts in the New Testament. The first is the submission of women to men in the context of the church which is corporately gathered. This is the basis for Paul’s instructions to women in 1 Timothy chapter 2 and in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. The second context for the submission of the woman is that of marriage. This is the context for the submission which Paul calls for in our text in Ephesians chapter 5.
In our next lesson, we will address the subject of the submission of the husband as the head of his wife. In this lesson, we are dealing with the submission of the wife to her husband as her head in marriage. This text does not require a general submission of all women to all men. It requires the submission of a wife to her own husband.
The woman is to “put herself under” the headship of her husband, her own husband. This word “own” indicates that while there may be other expressions of submission which are necessary and appropriate for a wife to evidence in her relationships with others, there is a special “submission” which is required in relationship to her husband. The same exclusiveness can be seen in the practice of “love.” We are to love everyone, including our enemy, our neighbor, and our brothers in Christ. But the “love” of a woman for her husband is special and unique. Her love for others is of the same essence, but not the same expression.
In our text, the scope of the wife’s submission is limited to her own husband. There are not restrictions specified or implied as to the scope of her submission to her husband. This text requires that the woman be subject to her own husband “in everything.” Does Paul mean for us to take his instruction literally?
Initially, I was inclined to think otherwise. I was inclined to take Paul’s teaching on the submission of the wife here in a way that was similar to our Lord’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:3-12. In that text, Jesus was asked to elaborate on the exceptions, to specify in what exceptional cases divorce could be sought. Jesus refused, turning his questioners attention to the rule, rather than to the exceptions. This was not because there were no exceptions (see Matthew 5:32), but because undue attention to the exceptions would weaken the rule. Permanence in marriage is not only the ideal but the norm, and divorce is never to be given the status of that which is expected. Consequently, I was convinced that Paul was speaking in a similar way here: “Yes, there are exceptions, when submission is impossible, but this is not to be the norm.” I’ve changed my mind on this. Paul’s words, “in everything,” seem to set aside any exceptions.
But what about those texts which indicate that we cannot “submit”? What about the civil disobedience of Peter and the apostles, when they told the religious leaders of Jerusalem, “We must obey God rather than men”? My answer is that the apostles disobeyed, but they did not cease to be submissive. A godly wife may not be able, before God, to obey her husband’s every demand, especially if he is not a Christian. But in her disobedience, she can still be submissive in spirit.
Let me illustrate what I am saying from the life of a very godly woman, whose name was Abigail, as found in 1 Samuel chapter 25. Abigail was married to a fool who was fittingly named Nabal (which means “fool”). Her husband was a rich man, with many cattle. David and his men hid out in the hills where Nabal lived and kept his flocks. During the time of David’s presence, Nabal suffered no losses, and gained from the protection offered by David and his men. And yet when David asked for an expression of appreciation from Nabal at the time of the sheering of the sheep, Nabal hotly refused.
David was greatly angered, and set out to kill not only Nabal, but every male associated with his household. Abigail knew that her husband has refused to give David what he had asked for. She knew that he would forbid what she was about to do. Nevertheless, Abigail went out to meet David, along with the gifts which David had asked for. She acknowledged to David that her husband was a fool, and pled for David not to commit evil by shedding blood, thereby adversely affecting His future reign as Israel’s king. David listed to her and took her gifts. And later, after God struck Nabal dead, he took her as his own wife.
How can we justify Abigail’s actions, in the light of Paul’s teaching? How could her actions possibly be an illustration of submission? They certainly were not acts of obedience. In the text of 1 Samuel 25, Abigail is spoken of in the most favorable way (see 25:3). David would hardly have married her if she were not a godly woman. The key to understanding the actions of Abigail is to understand the essence of what submission is. Submission is “placing yourself under” another. Submission, as I have already indicated, is not always expressed in obedience.
Abigail placed herself under Nabal (her husband), as well as under David (as God’s king to be). Abigail placed her own interests below those of her husband. She could not defend or support the decision of her husband, because he was wrong. She placed herself at risk, to save his life. She went out to meet the man who was angry and ready to kill. She pled with David for her husband’s life, and asked that the blame be hers. What better thing could she do for her husband?
How easy it would have been for her to fulfill the appearance of submission. She could have embraced her husband’s evil decision to reject and to humiliate David, the future king of Israel. She could have chosen to do nothing, once she realized that David was coming to kill Nabal and the other men in his household. And by this “appearance of submission” she would have been rid of this man who was a fool. Doing nothing would have been to her advantage, and acting as she did put her at great risk. By doing nothing, her husband would have died, but by her intercession his life was spared. This is true submission, acting on behalf of another, for their benefit, at your expense.
When Paul speaks of the wife being in submission to her own husband, in everything, he means that she need never cease to be submissive in spirit, even if she must disobey him in a specific area. He means also that wives should not attempt to compartmentalize their lives, setting certain areas “off limits” to submission. One can quickly see how we as members of the church would be tempted to do so in relation to our Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. The wife’s submission to her own husband is to be complete, across the board, without exception.
The Basis of the Wife’s Submission
23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
In verses 23 and 24, Paul writes that the basis for the submission of the wife to her own husband is the duty of the church in relationship to its Head, Jesus Christ. In our first study of this text, we emphasized the symbolic function of Christian marriage. From its inception in the Garden of Eden, marriage has served as a symbol of the relationship of Christ and His church. Marriage, even in Old Testament times, anticipated the day when Jesus Christ would come to the earth to die on the cross of Calvary to purchase a bride for His own possession.
In the marriage relationship, it is the husband’s privilege to portray the headship of Christ over the church by his loving and sacrificial leadership. The wife’s privilege and high calling is to symbolically represent the church in its submission the Lord Jesus Christ, its Head. The husband symbolizes Christ headship, while the wife symbolizes the submission of the church to her Head. The divinely appointed role of marriage as a symbol of Christ and the church is therefore the basis for the attitudes and behavior of both the husband and the wife.
Guiding Principles For Wife’s Submission
Three statements in our text supply the guiding principles for the submission of the wife to her husband:
“in the fear of Christ” (verse 21)
“as to the Lord” (verse 22)
“as the church is subject to Christ” (verse 24)
Notice the central and common element in all three statements: Christ. Submission in all of its expressions (wife, husband, father, child, slave, master) is rendered “in the fear of Christ” and “as to the Lord.” Our submission to others is a reflection and outworking of our submission to Christ. And so it is the children are instructed to obey their parents “in the Lord” (6:1), and slaves are exhorted to obedience to their masters “as to Christ” (6:5) and “as to the Lord” (6:7).
It is also significant to note what is not said. Nowhere in this text is anything said about any “qualifications” which the husband must meet, before the wife submits to him in everything. It is not said that he must be a Christian. In a similar text in 1 Peter 3:1-7, the submission of the wife is required even if the husband is “disobedient to the word” (3:1).139 For the wife to submit, her husband does not have to be intelligent, wise, or a “spiritual leader.” The fact that he is her husband is the only qualification given. As such, the wife’s submission to him is a reflection of the submission of the church to Christ. If the husband utterly fails to fulfill his obligations as laid down by Paul, this in no way relieves the wife of her obligation to submit to him. Indeed, her submission becomes all the more striking as his leadership proves to be poor.
In verse 24 Paul instructs wives that their submission to their own husbands is to be like (“as”) that of the church to Christ. This guiding principle is the most suggestive of the three. It is not, however, the kind of “how to” instruction which Christians seem to demand today. It does not have a list of duties. It does not provide us with clever techniques for proper submission.
Why not? Because this kind of “how to Christianity” comes dangerously close to legalism, and it looks a great deal like the mechanical religion of the Pharisees in the New Testament. Paul’s instructions are not given to us to make submission easy, but to challenge us to godly living. Let me suggest some of the implications of Paul’s less than specific instruction.
First, in order to obey Paul’s command to be submissive, the Christian wife must understand biblical doctrine. Christ, Paul has said, is the “Savior of the body” (verse 23). The husband is to be, to the wife, like Christ is to the church. This means that she must understand the doctrine of salvation. She must live with her husband as the church lives toward Christ. Thus, she must also understand the doctrine of the church. At the very least (because there are other Scriptures than Ephesians), the godly Christian woman must understand the relationship of Christ and His church as laid down in chapters 1-4.
In addition to serious study of the Scriptures, the godly wife must meditate upon the Scriptures, to discern how the relationship of Christ and His church is to be played out by her conduct in relation to her husband and her marriage. From this study and meditation, the wife must determine what specific actions are required and come to some personal convictions about those matters which are not clearly defined by Scripture. She must grow in faith, trusting that God is leading her and sanctifying her, not only when her husband plays his role well, but when he does not. No simple rules will give her all the answers, and thus Paul does not attempt to give them.
From a related passage in 1 Peter chapter 3, we can identify three examples of the wife’s submission, as outlined by Peter:
1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3 And let not your adornment be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4 but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. 6 Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Peter 3:1-6).
The first example of submission is that of the silence140 of the wife. Following the example set by none other than our Lord (1 Peter 2:21-25), wives should not try to convince or convert their disobedient husbands by their words, but by means of their silence and their godly demeanor. The ungodly woman would seek to change her husband by nagging him (see Proverbs 19:13; 27:15), but the godly woman leaves change to God.
The second example of submission is found in the appearance and demeanor of the wife. The “chaste” behavior of the wife is yet another manifestation of a submissive spirit. In the context of Peter’s instruction of wives who would be godly, “chaste” behavior is reflected in the dress and appearance of the woman. The ungodly woman, like the world in which she lives, is obsessed with outward appearances, rather than with inward character (see Matthew 6:1-18; 23:25-26; Luke 16:15).
Much emphasis is placed upon dress and cosmetics, rather than upon qualities of the spirit. In the culture of the New Testament church, women dressed in a way that did not draw attention to themselves. Instead of “dresses” (1 Peter 3:3), they would wear a more generic robe. Heads were covered as well as the rest of the body. Women who wished to be prominent might not find verbal assertiveness acceptable, and so they would turn to the more subtle and silent devices. Dresses which revealed much more of their “curves” and adornments which were sure to catch the eye were worn. And the results were assured. People would take note, and they would become the focus of attention.
Modesty, on the other hand, would not draw attention to oneself, and thus the prominence which should bear witness to the husband’s headship would be given to him. I should add that a woman’s attire and appearance can attract attention backhandedly as well. A woman whose clothing is disheveled and disorderly, and whose appearance would qualify her for a staring role in a horror movie will also get attention. Whether it be by means of fancy clothing and heavy makeup or by means of atrocious clothing and no makeup, the affect produced can be the same—attention gained at the expense of the husband.
The third example of a wife’s submission is that of reverence or respect for her husband. This is not only singled out by Peter (1 Peter 3:2, 4), but also by Paul in our text (Ephesians 5:33b). How easy it is for a wife to subtly indicate a spirit of disrespect by her attitudes and by her actions. I have often seen this done in what seems to be a very spiritual manner: “Please pray that my husband will become the spiritual leader in our home.” The inference is that he is nothing but an unspiritual slob, who is unworthy of respect (or submission).
Whether our culture agrees with Scripture or not—whether we agree with Paul or not—the clear teaching of this text, supported by other equally clear instructions from Scripture, is that wives are to be subject to their own husbands in everything. The basis for the wife’s submission is the relationship of Jesus Christ and His church. The purpose of her submission is to symbolically demonstrate the submission of the church to her Head, Jesus Christ. To fail to submit is to disobey our Lord, to dishonor the word of God (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:5), and to distort the representation of Christ and His church, not only to the world, but to the angelic witnesses as well (see 1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:8-11; 1 Peter 1:12).
By inference, our text has much to say to the young woman who is considering marriage. A commitment to marriage to a young man is the commitment to a lifetime of submission to that man. If there is any one question which should be in a young woman’s mind concerning marriage it is this one: “Is this the kind of man I want as my “head,” to whom I will submit in all things for the rest of my life?” Surely our text suggests the necessity of premarriage counseling, so that an independent, objective third party can help in arriving at the answer.
Once in marriage, this question must be laid aside. The man you have married is the man to whom you must submit. This is not due to any merit on his part, not because he is a good leader and deserves to be followed, but because he, as your husband, is the picture of Christ in your marriage, as you are the picture of His church.
If there were ever a picture of a person who refused to submit, it would be Sadam Hussein. Here is a man who defied the United Nations, and was subsequently defeated in war. And yet, even in defeat, Sadam persists to refuse to allow the inspection of sights suspected to contain weapons of mass destruction. He resists submission to the full.
Do we think we are any different than he, in the final analysis? We are not. We, too, resist the necessity of submission as though it were the most horrible requirement. The world (or culture) in which we live is adamant in its resistance to the teachings of Scripture regarding the submission of wives to their husbands. Our own flesh resists subordination to the interests of others, insisting on seeking self-interests first. And the devil persists, as he has done from the beginning, to promote rebellion against God’s authority and His headship.
True submission is not difficult, my friend, it is impossible. There is no way that we can, in and of our own strength, submit. But that only means that we must look to God to produce that of which we are incapable, but which His word commands. Our text on submission follows immediately upon the teaching of Paul concerning being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). It is only as the Holy Spirit controls our life that the will and the ability to obey His commands are produced. To submit to one another necessitates that we die daily, that our flesh by crucified, put to death. This is God’s work, and we must trust in Him to do it. This is God’s work, and we must cooperate with Him as He does it.
All of human history is about the divine purpose of God to bring all things under God’s authority and control, in Christ. Satan rebelled against God’s authority when he fell. He then tempted Adam and Eve to follow in his steps. Jesus Christ came to this earth the first time so that some might submit to Him for salvation. He comes yet again to subject all those who have rebelled against His authority and headship.
Our text is about submission—the voluntary surrender of our rights and self-interest for the benefit of others and for the glory of God. There is another way in which surrender will be accomplished in the future, and this was is subjection. When our Lord Jesus returns to the earth to establish His kingdom, all of His enemies will be subjected to Christ. This will not be voluntary, but will be accomplished forcibly:
When Peter preached to the Jewish unbelievers in Jerusalem at Pentecost, He not only informed them that the One they had crucified was the Christ, the Messiah, but that He was coming back, to subdue His enemies:
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—23 this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.… 32 “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. 34 “For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘ The Lord said to my Lord,” Sit at My right hand, 35 Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet. “‘ 36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22-23, 32-36).
The One who submitted Himself to the will of the Father and to the suffering of the cross is the One who will return to subject the whole world to His authority:
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5-11).
Have you submitted to Him by faith? Have you trusted in Him as God’s salvation, as the only way to heaven? If not, there is awaiting you that dreaded day when you will bow, not in humble and grateful submission, but by subjection. I pray that you will submit to Him as your Savior, and not wait until you are forced acknowledge Him as the One whom you rejected. There is a world of difference between submission and subjection. What a beautiful thing submission is. What a privilege is ours to practice it, to His glory and for our good.
139 I’m not certain that this refers only to “unbelieving” husbands. It seems to be more general, referring to those who are disobedient to the word. They are “won” to obedience, which may or may not include salvation. In any case, if Peter’s words apply even to a hostile, unbelieving, husband, surely they apply to all other husbands.